As we remember 9/11 this week, I thought it was a good time to review the museum and memorial of our country’s second worst terrorist attack – The Oklahoma City Bombing. On April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh, a US Army Veteran and member of a radical right-wing survivalist group, drove a rental truck into the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown OK City, killing 168 people including 19 children.
As a native Texan, living in Dallas, this hit pretty close to home. Oklahoma City is a short three-hour drive up I-35. It became even more personal when a call went out to massage therapists who were needed to work on the exhausted first responders. The bombing was on Wednesday and I went up on Friday and spent the weekend in the convention center. The first responders and all related agencies were sleeping on cots in a separate area of the building and the massage therapists along with the Red Cross and the dozens of volunteers who cooked food and handed out supplies were set up in another section. At twenty-seven, it was my first experience seeing people come together during a disaster to serve and support each other.
There were between five and seven therapists there at a time and we literally worked around the clock taking naps on our tables when we could. It was one of the most meaningful and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. We not only worked on the first responder’s exhausted bodies, but we also listened to their stories of the rare victories when they would find a survivor but primarily stories of frustration and heartache. As the days went on it was quickly turning into a recovery mission from the earlier rescue mission. I remember one story in particular from a member of the K-9 unit. He told me they were having to take turns hiding in the rubble so the dogs could find them simply because the dogs were getting depressed and unmotivated from the lack of success in finding life. Twenty two years later, that story still gets to me.
As with the 9/11 Memorial, which is on my bucket list, Oklahoma City has created a beautiful and powerful memorial of its own. It sits on the site that was the Murrah Federal Building and has an outdoor memorial with a museum next door which had previously housed the Law Journal Record Publishing Company before the bombing.
The outdoor memorial is free and open 24/7. There are several aspects of the memorial but three that stood out to me were the Chairs, the Gates of Time and the Survivor Tree. The 168 chairs are in remembrance of each victim. There are 149 large chairs and 19 smaller ones representing the children who lost their lives. Each chair has the name of a victim and at night each one is lit up creating a hauntingly beautiful site. The chairs are arranged in nine rows representing the nine floors of the Federal building and they sit on the land the building stood on. In front of the chairs is a reflection pool where NW Fifth Street was and the Gates of Time sit on either side. The first gate has 9:01 etched in it representing the moment before the attack when all was quite and normal and the second has 9:03 representing the moment that changed things forever. A third highlight of the memorial is the Survivors Tree which is an American Elm tree that withstood the attack and is a symbol of survival, hope and resilience.
The museum is next door and is well worth the $15 admission. It is open Mon-Fri from 9am-6pm and Sundays from noon-6pm. It takes you through the event chronologically including an official recording of a Oklahoma Water Resources board meeting from the building across the street. You sit in a room and the recording is played when suddenly the bomb detonates. You are able to hear the actual recording of the bomb blast and the reactions of the people in the board meeting. It is a jolt of reality that brings the experience to life.
The museum also has photos, news footage, video, items found in the rubble and stories from both victims and survivors. The museum is very well done and has ten different “chapters” of the event that will appeal to everyone in some way. It provides several different types of media and covers different angles of the bombing from Timothy McVeigh’s background and the investigation to an interactive series of questions on how we might make better choices in the future.
When you visit, plan to stay or go back when the sun goes down. I would suggest visiting the outdoor memorial then head to the museum by 4:30 as you will need a good 60-90 minutes to get through it. They stop selling tickets at 5:00. After you go through the museum, head over to Bricktown just a few blocks away where you will find lots of great restaurants. I had lunch at Pearl’s Crabtown and enjoyed a great bowl of etouffee and a fabulous blackberry cobbler. After the sun goes down, head back over to the memorial and witness the chairs lit up. I was only there for the day and didn’t get to see this, but I plan to make a trip back just for this reason.
I would love to read about your experiences from the day of the bombing or the memorial. If you have any photos of the memorial at night, please post them in the comments. Thanks!